Ashton grinned. ‘I talked them out of that so they’ve settled for one in the games room instead.’ His eyes alighted on the slender curve of Leoni’s neck as she headed inside with a wave, and he reminded himself that he had a job to do. With an effort, he refocused on his plans.
Having spent a restless night sleeping in the four-poster bed while the party downstairs became increasingly raucous, Cat woke late with a pounding headache. Feeling groggy, she threw back the white linen sheets she’d slept in, surprised to find that a raspberry-coloured silk floss duvet had been added during the night for warmth.
A ‘guilt’ duvet, Cat thought with a flash of humour as she headed into an ensuite bathroom with walls the colour of cherry blossom and pristine white fittings. It had a freestanding bath, an enormous shower and two sinks, which were surrounded by small, expensive-looking toiletries. It was like being in a luxurious hotel, Cat mused. A hotel without the usual welcoming reception. Guy had been polite and friendly but that had been about it.
Cat turned the shower on, jumping as hot water immediately shot out of several jets in the walls. She was still upset about Leoni’s reaction to her arrival but she hoped it was just a knee-jerk reaction. Didn’t Leoni realise she was just as devastated about Olivier’s death? As odd as the situation was, they actually had something in common: they had both loved Olivier and they both missed him terribly.
Cat peered into the bathroom mirror, shocked at how pasty she looked. A bad night’s sleep on top of her airport delays had left her looking ill and fragile – and crying into her pillow hadn’t exactly helped, she thought ruefully. She was furious with herself for feeling so emotional after so many months had passed but being here made her feel closer to Olivier somehow, even if coming face to face with evidence of his privileged upbringing had shocked her to the core.
What she needed to do now was find out why Olivier had lied to her about them. Cat determined to do some digging and learn more about her late husband while she was here. He must have had a good reason to hide his family from her, she told herself firmly; it was just a matter of finding out what was behind it all.
As she dried herself, Cat noticed a silver monogram in the corner of the white towel. The letter ‘D’ entwined with the letter ‘F’. She frowned. ‘D’ for Ducasse, obviously, but what did the ‘F’ stand for? She put on some make-up in an attempt to look more human – plenty of blusher and a smear of pink lipstick. Bypassing a bright green dress that looked far too jaunty for a widow to wear, she decided on a more sombre black one. It was short but it would have to do, and she added a long cream sweater to keep the morning chill at bay – it was January and even though it was much warmer than in the UK, it wasn’t sunbathing weather, by any means.
In the room, she found a formal invitation that must have been delivered while she was in the shower. Handwritten but on a stiff white card with silver edging, it requested her presence at a meeting in the boardroom the following day. Cat assumed this must be the ‘business’ the letter had outlined and taking her unexpectedly sumptuous surroundings into account, she was beginning to realise there could be legal implications to her marriage to Olivier. They must be suspicious of her, at the very least.
She went downstairs and left the house, wrapping her arms around her protectively as she braced herself for bumping into a member of the Ducasse family. Finding herself by the oval pool, which looked just as impressive in the cold light of day, Cat remembered the couple frolicking in the nearby hot tub and wondered who they were. Sure she wouldn’t be able to eat a thing, she avoided the salon Guy had told her breakfast was served in, not least because she couldn’t bear the thought of running into Leoni. The last thing Cat needed right now was a fracas with Olivier’s formidable sister over the Bonne Maman preserves.
Staff were milling about discreetly, wearing white and maroon uniforms with the same swirly monograms on their lapels as the towel upstairs. Cat watched them, open mouthed. She’d assumed that the staff she’d seen last night had been hired for the party but apparently not. What looked like maids, gardeners and footmen were cleaning up debris from the party and ensuring that the château was put back to its immaculate best. One maid rescued what looked suspiciously like a pair of knickers from behind a pool lounger, discreetly stuffing them into her pocket without missing a beat, as if such things were an everyday occurrence.
Bemused at just how rich the Ducasse family were, Cat was about to head towards the graveyard Guy had mentioned when she realised she wasn’t alone. Turning apprehensively, she found Guy’s daughter, the girl she’d seen sobbing, staring at her with slanting, feline eyes. She was wearing a pair of tight jeans that made her legs look endless, and a pink Lacoste sweatshirt. She appeared taller than she had the night before and she was clutching a small photo album. Her expression was haughty and Cat bristled, realising it wasn’t just Leoni who resented her presence.
‘What are you doing?’ Seraphina asked in perfect English, her tone as chilly as her gaze.
‘Just . . . looking around,’ Cat responded lamely, not wanting to admit she had been about to visit Olivier’s grave.
‘Wondering how much it’s all worth?’ Seraphina returned.
Taken aback, Cat shook her head. So she was right about the Ducasse family being wary of her and her motives.
‘I saw you admiring the Monet last night,’ Seraphina commented, watching Cat carefully.
‘The Monet? God, yes . . . it’s absolutely stunning.’ Cat couldn’t help laughing. ‘It’s not every day you get to see a real one, is it? At least, it might be for you but it most certainly isn’t for me – or for most people.’ Seeing Seraphina’s unchanged expression, Cat decided on a more open approach. ‘My dad loved Monet, especially the water-lily series. Seeing the Monet reminded me of him . . . he’d have keeled over if he’d seen that last night. So if I seemed a bit dumbstruck, the honest truth is that I was.’
Not sure if the story about her Monet-loving father was true or not, Seraphina gestured to a sun lounger and took a seat on one nearby. Cat sat down, wondering why the girl wanted to talk to her. The comment about the Monet made her sigh and, glancing up at the château, she felt perturbed. What did they think she wanted – to be given part of the house, or something? It was too silly for words.
‘You don’t look much like a widow,’ Seraphina said in an unfriendly tone.
‘Really?’ Cat wasn’t sure what a widow should look like. She glanced down at her outfit. ‘Is it the dress? It’s too short, isn’t it?’
Seraphina shrugged and didn’t comment. ‘The family have been discussing you non-stop since Olivier died,’ she informed Cat, almost as if she was assessing her reaction. ‘We didn’t know if you were ever going to make an appearance.’
Cat quickly explained the missing solicitor’s letter. ‘I didn’t know if I should come,’ she admitted, ‘especially since so many months had passed since Olivier died.’ She looked away. ‘But then I decided I had nothing to lose. I didn’t even know any of you existed until I received the letter.’
Seraphina raised her eyebrows disbelievingly. ‘Really? How odd.’
‘I know.’ Cat had an idea Seraphina was being sarcastic and that made her feel uneasy. She paused, not sure how to word her question but she had to know why Olivier had pretended his family didn’t exist. ‘Was Olivier estranged from his family?’ she asked. ‘Had there been some sort of big argument?’
‘No!’ Seraphina looked astonished. ‘I mean, he and Grandmother never saw eye to eye, but there was no big argument, to my knowledge. Why would you think that?’
Cat bit her lip. Surely it was inappropriate to reveal that Olivier had pretended he was penniless and that he didn’t even have a family to speak of. ‘He . . . gave me the impression his life was . . . not as lavish as all this.’ Cat gestured to the pool and the extensive grounds of the château.
C’est bien de lui
!’ Seraphina exclaimed. ‘How like Olivier . . . you know, to lie to you like that,’ she translated for Cat’s benefit, unaware that Cat had understood her. ‘Olivier was
. . . a prankster,’ she explained. ‘He would often pretend he was poor because it amused him.’
‘Did he? Did he really?’ Cat immediately felt better; so she had been right to believe Olivier wasn’t a phoney. She still couldn’t understand why he would have played such a prank on her, especially after they were married, but she guessed perhaps she didn’t know him as well as she’d thought she did. That’s what happened when you fell head over heels and married someone you barely knew, she thought wryly. Impulsiveness was all very well but it had its down sides.
Something occurred to Seraphina. ‘Did Olivier use the name Laroque or did he tell you he was a Ducasse?’
‘He used the name Laroque,’ Cat replied, wondering why Seraphina had asked this. Before she had a chance to question her, Seraphina caught her off guard.
‘Did you love him?’ she asked bluntly. Her feline eyes demanded the truth.
The question hit Cat like a body blow. She
loved Olivier, very much, but clearly the family doubted her feelings. Cat understood why they had misgivings about her – they’d never met her before now, for a start – but still, the fact that Seraphina was even asking her that question filled her with sadness.
‘I fell head over heels in love with him,’ she confessed frankly. ‘He was handsome but he was so kind and funny too.’ Cat paused. ‘The holiday . . . it was so romantic and even though I knew it was crazy, when Olivier proposed, I had to say yes. I mean, I wanted to do it, I would never have married him if I hadn’t had deep feelings. It just felt right to live for the moment.’ She turned to Seraphina. ‘You must believe me. Who would do something as serious as getting married if they weren’t in love?’
Seraphina let out a short laugh. ‘You’d be surprised, especially where my family are involved.’ She studied Cat, trying to work out if she was genuine. She seemed it – her aquamarine-blue eyes seemed honest and everything about her behaviour and manner appeared sincere. Seraphina put down the photo album and pulled the sleeves of her sweatshirt over her hands. She wanted to trust Cat, she really wanted to believe Olivier’s widow wasn’t a gold digger, but having grown up around adults who mistrusted people’s motives where money was concerned, Seraphina felt the need to be cautious.
‘Leoni seems very upset about Olivier’s death,’ Cat commented, wondering why Seraphina was scrutinising her as though she were a fascinating artefact in a museum. ‘Understandably so,’ she added, in case she sounded unsympathetic.
Seraphina sat back and said nothing, her expression impassive.
Cat couldn’t help wondering why Seraphina appeared so sanguine; aside from the tears she had witnessed last night, she couldn’t see any evidence of grief over Olivier.
‘We . . . we lost our mother two years ago,’ Seraphina said suddenly in a soft voice, as if she’d guessed what Cat was thinking. ‘And Olivier’s parents, our aunt and uncle, died too but that was a very long time ago.’ She picked at the sleeve of her pink sweatshirt distractedly, her eyes downcast. ‘We are used to loss, I suppose.’
‘Does anyone ever get used to it?’ Cat said, staring past her.
Seraphina looked up. It sounded as though Cat knew what she was feeling but that was impossible because no one understood. ‘We . . . we’re not supposed to show emotion,’ she said in halting tones, not sure why she was confiding in Cat. ‘Not in public. Grandmother frowns on it.’
So that was why Seraphina had needed a private place to weep. Clearly, betraying emotion was unacceptable in this family. ‘That’s a shame,’ Cat responded as tactfully as possible. ‘Sometimes having a good cry or just opening up to someone can make all the difference.’
‘No one knows what it feels like,’ Seraphina blurted out, tears clouding her vision. ‘When you lose someone, I mean.’
Full of compassion, Cat nodded. Having lost her own parents at Seraphina’s age, she knew how difficult it was to accept such an unfair situation. ‘It’s like the rug’s been pulled out from under you, isn’t it?’ she commented, thinking aloud. ‘No, worse than that. It’s as though there’s this big hole in your heart that can never be filled again. People think they understand what it’s like to lose a parent but they don’t. You feel so abandoned . . . so alone.’
Seraphina stared at Cat. No one had ever described it like that to her before but the words summed up her feelings perfectly. Realising she had found a kindred spirit in Cat, Seraphina felt the urge to open up to her more. She was starved of female companionship because all her friends were at college and career-obsessed Leoni and her austere grandmother were hardly ideal confidantes.
‘I don’t actually know what I’m doing here,’ Cat said, sitting up and hugging her knees. ‘I mean, I was invited and the letter mentioned something about business but, I don’t know, I thought perhaps the Ducasse family wanted to meet me.’ She laughed. ‘Get to know me, or something.’ Remembering Leoni’s horrified expression, Cat’s eyes became sober. ‘I think I’ve made a huge mistake.’
Seraphina felt a flash of guilt. If Olivier’s young widow was as genuine as she appeared, she must be feeling bewildered and hurt by the hostile reception she had received. Seraphina tried to make amends.
‘You must meet the rest of the family,’ she said in a warmer tone. ‘My brother Max – he’s my twin but he’s dark and, just to warn you, he can be very moody. Boys.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘My older brother Xavier is gorgeous and the best person to be around, but he’s a bit preoccupied with his new girlfriend, Therese. She’s a redhead and bit of a slut, between you and me. But I’m biased. I always think Xavier deserves better because he’s had such a hard . . .’ Seraphina stopped, as if she felt she had said too much. She stood up. ‘Anyway, he’s lovely. I’m sure you’ll meet him soon. How long do you think you’ll be here?’